Iraqi Kurdish forces advance near Mosul
ZHAZER, Iraq — Iraqi Kurdish forces pushed toward Mosul on Sunday, cordoning off eight villages and coming within 5 miles of the northern city held by Islamic State, which staged an attack in a western town hundreds of miles away in an apparent diversionary tactic.
The Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, said the area they cordoned off measures around 38 square miles and that they also secured a “significant stretch” of highway. The statement said eight car bombs were destroyed in the operation, including three by U.S.-led coalition aircraft, and “dozens” of militants were killed.
The offensive near the town of Bashiqa came nearly a week after Iraq announced the start of the long-awaited Mosul offensive. Iraqi and Kurdish forces are approaching from the north, east and south through a belt of mostly abandoned and heavily mined villages.
Maj. Gen. Haider Fadhi, of Iraq’s special forces said they also took part in the operation and that Bashiqa was completely encircled.
Islamic State has put up stiff resistance in many areas and has carried out attacks further afield that appear aimed at diverting attention from the Mosul operation.
Islamic State militants stormed into the town of Rutba, in far western Iraq, unleashing three suicide car bombs that were blown up before hitting their targets, according to the spokesman for the Joint Military Command, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool.
He said some militants were killed and declined to say whether any civilians or Iraqi forces were killed. He said the militants did not seize any government buildings and that the situation “is under control.”
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, confirmed there had been a complex attack in Rutba and said he expects more such diversionary attacks as Iraqi forces close in on Mosul.
Islamic State carried out a large assault on the northern city of Kirkuk on Friday, in which more than 50 militants stormed government compounds and other targets, setting off more than 24 hours of heavy fighting and killing at least 80 people, mainly security forces.
The Mosul offensive involves more than 25,000 Iraqi ground forces as well as U.S.-led coalition aircraft and advisers. It is expected to take weeks, if not months, to drive Islamic State from Iraq’s second-largest city, home to more than a million civilians.
Bashiqa is close to a military base of the same name where some 500 Turkish troops are training Sunni and Kurdish fighters for the Mosul offensive. Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, said Sunday that Turkish tanks and artillery had begun aiding the Kurdish forces in the Bashiqa offensive.
The presence of the Turkish troops has angered Iraq, which says it never gave them permission to enter the country and has called on them to withdraw. Turkey has refused, insisting that it play a role in retaking Mosul from Islamic State.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has visited both countries in recent days, and was in the Kurdish regional capital, Irbil, on Sunday. After meeting with Turkish leaders, Carter announced an “agreement in principle” for Turkey to have a role in the operation. But Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told Carter on Saturday that Mosul was an “Iraqi battle.”
Meanwhile, UNICEF’s Iraq representative, Peter Hawkins, said children in and around Mosul are at risk of death or injury from the fighting, as well as sexual violence, kidnapping and recruitment by armed groups.
Iraqi forces fire artillery shells Sunday from the outskirts of Al Khuwayn, south of Mosul.